The less said about this, the better. They cut all the best bits, made the funny bits melodramatic and how do you cock up a play with witches, pirates and Jack Cade?
Henry VI, Part Two (or, as we renamed it during the interval, “The Warrior Queen, or Jack Cade and the Temple of Doom”) is my all-time favourite Shakespeare play, so believe me when I tell you it takes a lot for a production to bore me. One of my companions likened yesterday’s show to a very accomplished school play, which isn’t too far off the mark.
The real disappointment is that it opened with four actors wearing bright paper crowns and zipping around the stage on scooters, which is a brilliant opening and totally in the spirit of the play. Unfortunately, the rest of the production didn’t live up to this promise.
Henry VI, Part Two is just not a play that takes a lot of dramatic weight. It’s chilling in places and heartbreaking in places, but those places are few and far between. Most of it is batshit bonkers in a good way. It’s a play about chaos and the breakdown of order, and Shakespeare shows that through a series of intentionally bizarre comic bits including, but not limited to:
- Queen Margaret snuggling publicly with the decapitated head of her dead boyfriend
- A seance featuring spirits who rhyme in bad Latin, which is actually all a scam
- St Alban miraculously curing a man of blindness and lameness, which is actually all a scam
- The following exchange: “Rome shall remedy this.” “Roam thither, then!”
- Pirates, one of whom explicitly has an eyepatch
- Lords sneaking around in each others’ gardens to compare family trees
- Jack Cade, who I won’t try to describe here, but who is amazing
- Characters named: Dick the Butcher; Peter Thump; Margery Jourdaine, the Witch of Eye.
- The first appearance of the boy who will be Richard III, and you can really tell.
It’s ridiculous and great, and it’s supposed to be ridiculous and great. It’s energetic, sexy, raucous and funny. Unfortunately, the National Theatre of Albania was convinced it was a ponderous slow-motion parliamentary epic, and filed off all the interesting bits to create a straight-down-the-line yawnfest. Delightfully creepy necrophiliac head-snuggling was out – I suppose they thought it would have made the characters too interesting? – but a three-minute speech in the final scene by Clifford vowing revenge for his father’s death, which didn’t happen onstage and won’t be carried out by the same company of actors (it happens in Part Three), was in.
The production also incomprehensibly left in several plot elements without explaining them in the surtitled scene summaries. The prophecy that Suffolk will “die by water” was noted, but when the pirate Walter Whitmore (“Walter” being a homonym for “water” in Shakespeare’s dialect) arrives, his name doesn’t come up in the summaries , although I heard the actors say it. Likewise, Jack Cade is killed offstage (his death is onstage in the play) and when his killer arrives with his head – none of this is mentioned at all! A strange man pops up with something that looks like it might be a head in a bag (or it might be a fishing buoy), King Henry looks pleased, the strange man exits. The end. If you weren’t a giant nerd like me you’d have no idea what had just happened, or indeed what had happened to Cade at all.
Worst of all, the production was just boring. And despite being saddled with probably the worst titles in Shakespeare, the Henry VIs are almost never boring. I’m not hard to please when it comes to this play; entirely the contrary. In that way, this production was almost an accomplishment. Almost.
There were some redemptive aspects. The pirates were piratical. Dick the Butcher was perfect, wry and menacing. York was an extremely good actor (and very underused). His son, the young Richard III-to-be, had a great physicality. Eleanor Cobham, Gloucester’s disgraced wife who attempts to gain the throne using witchcraft was extremely well acted by Yllka Mujo – all aspects of her plot were good. A clarinet player popped up in the audience to play comedy sneaking-around music when her assistant John Hume told the audience about his double-dealing, which was probably my favourite part of the show after the scooters.
Seriously, the scooters!! They were so close! How do you come up with a genius touch like scooters and then fumble the ball so badly?!
I saw Globe to Globe’s Henry VI, Part Two at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 13, 2012.